Sustainable agriculture: Only farmers can change farming
There’s no substitute to working closely with farmers on-the-ground for real and effective transformation in agriculture, argues Chris Wille
Many well-intended companies will not meet their 2020 zero-deforestation targets. The cattle agreement and soy moratorium in Brazil, which were already porous, may be upended by the election of Jair Balsonaro. The Cerrado manifesto likely will disappoint.
There’s a common thread: top-down campaigns do not sufficiently engage farmers.
Only farmers (smallholders, plantation managers) can make the changes we all want to see. Governments, NGOs, activists, companies and consumers can regulate, insist, incentivise, assist and monitor, but only farmers can make agriculture sustainable. But how can we possibly reach tens of millions of farmers and thousands of plantation managers? The most promising approach is also the best known: standards and certification.
But wait! Weren’t these broad agreements made in part because certification was not moving fast enough? When we lament the slowness of certification and pontificate about the need to go “beyond certification”, we’re mostly talking about auditing, the arcane bureaucracy of certification, sticking ecolabels on products and marketing. But this misses other components of the model that drive actual change on the ground, the same elements that interest farmers and can convert them into champions for conservation.
A series of interlinked activities are lumped under the certification flag, including standard setting, agreeing and testing best practices, monitoring and metrics, socio-economic and ecological surveys, self-guided and contracted farm assessments, training, technical and infrastructure assistance, independent third-party audits, certification, supply chain management, ecolabels, price premiums, marketing, and consumer education.
Auditing, certification, ecolabels, price premiums, marketing, and consumer education are important. Standards and the farm-level activities are essential to transforming agriculture.
We could call the first group of activities “certification” and the second group something like the “sustainable agriculture pathway”, or SAP. Separating the activities into two groups would help us discuss sustainable agriculture interventions with more nuance and precision. And it would help us focus on farmers.
For example, standards are so strongly associated with certification that their importance as farm-management guidelines and training tools are sometimes overlooked. Standards are the foundation for everything else needed to get farms on the sustainable agriculture pathway. They can have impacts far beyond certification.
A good standard setting process is an ongoing science-based and farmer-directed discussion to agree on definitions, the theory of change, “desired outcomes”, metrics, best farm management practices, globally unacceptable practices and all of the improvements necessary to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while increasing the social and economic benefits. Best practices for this time-tested process have been codified by ISEAL.
If it helps avoid the stigma of “certification”, call standards “smart farming guidelines”. The Sustainable Agriculture Network, which developed the first guidelines in collaboration with farmers, now calls its standard the Sustainable Agriculture Framework.
Farmers are at the table when standards are set and continually involved in testing, refining and revising. Standards are a roadmap to sustainable farming success, not just criteria for certification. In addition to making sure that producers have a voice in standard setting, progressive organisations are looking for ways to give farmers more say in how standards are used for certification.
The new Rainforest Alliance standard, for example, will allow producers that meet the critical criteria to choose the areas they would like to emphasise, whether that be productivity, agroforestry, climate-change readiness or another objective.
Farm assessments are associated with certification, but progressive programs also use standards to inspect – not audit – farms. Well-managed inspections are valuable learning opportunities. Assessments help farmers see where they can improve, develop farm management plans, and learn from their peers. Assessments set the table for a frank and open relationship with farmers.
Based on the assessments, trainers can focus their efforts on exactly what the producer, co-op or company needs, delivering the information in ways that are meaningful and implementable. This is where the conservation happens – or not. Farmers need training and technical assistance to sustainably succeed.
The best sustainable agriculture programs engage farmers in an on-going dialogue. Training is a two-way conversation. Good trainers learn as much from the farmers as vice versa. Smart trainers know that training is mostly listening, learning about the farmers’ problems, challenges, successes, innovations and aspirations. They are partners with the farmers, not auditors.
Most small farmers are concerned about economic survival and plantation managers about budget; their first question is usually about costs and benefits. Some in the certification movement overplayed the prospect of price premiums. While many certified goods do command higher prices and most certified farms have better market access, we learned long ago not to harness the sustainable agriculture wagon to the fickle horse of market demand.
Price premiums are important, but other economic benefits are more meaningful to farmers – and more manageable – such as improving crop quality, lifting productivity, controlling costs and inputs, and learning to manage a farm budget.
Farmers and plantation managers are equally motivated by improved relations with the local community, more equitable standing with buyers, happy, healthy, well-trained, loyal and efficient workers, and knowing that their operations measure up to local and global criteria for best practice in regenerative farming. Finally, pride is one of the most powerful motivators.
If the program is managed for farmers and not just for buyers – and especially not for campaign groups – producers take pride in meeting the standards, getting certified, having a stand-out farm, setting an example for neighbours, doing their share to conserve water, wildlife and other natural resources, and knowing that their operation is reduced risk, resilient and climate smart.
Both halves of the model – the SAP activities and the certification process – need improvement. Many NGOs, companies and coalitions are on the case. There are exciting examples of ways to accelerate training, reaching more producers with custom-tailored technical assistance modules. Highly experienced practitioners are re-imagining auditing and certification. The climate crisis and the increased understanding of the importance of forests, other ecosystems and biodiversity to agriculture raise challenges, of course, but are also leading to innovations and incentives for sustainable farm management practices.
The upscale in experimenting with landscape-level projects is promising, so long as we don’t allow it to delude us into thinking that there is an alternative to reaching each and every producer. The growing commitments to rooting deforestation out of supply chains are encouraging, so long as we don’t forget that we can’t separate complex social, economic and environmental issues.
They are intertwined and inter-dependent. We can’t stop deforestation or child labour, for example, without – at the same time – increasing productivity, ensuring legal land tenure, building strong rural communities, providing proper rights and benefits to farm workers, and so on.
Top-down campaigns are ill-suited for changing farming, the most grassroots activity on the Earth. Farmers must be front and centre. The most-effective programs are bottom up, designed and implemented at the local level. Let’s look at the missed commitments, misguided campaigns and missed opportunities through the lens of farmer involvement. For example, many palm oil or soy producers are only meeting standards because certification is required. True transformation of these or any crop depends on farmers willingly employing sustainable practices (as detailed in standards) because they see the benefits of doing so, not because they are responding to demands.
Thoughtful campaigns and grand commitments such as zero deforestation pledges are valuable, especially in raising awareness among disparate stakeholders. Some companies may meet their zero-deforestation targets by simply avoiding high-risk suppliers, which can aggravate the problem. Others are making progress because they or their partner NGOs are effectively engaging farmers with SAP techniques.
An Indonesian palm oil producer once explained that we can’t force farmers to change behaviour by imploring them from afar. It’s like trying to compel your football team to win, he said, by yelling at the television.
We have to be in the game, actually on the field.
Chris Wille, conservation consigliere, is a former head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance. All photos here came from him.
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